So You Want To Be A Lawyer, Part 1: A Brief History of the Legal Profession

HEY! So, there were a lot of great suggestions for posts yesterday from my newly found technicolor zoo of friendly animal-people, but I woke up this morning and thought to myself: “Am I gonna listen to these assholes? I don’t even let other lawyers suggest what the fuck I’m going to write about!”

So today, I’m writing for all the people out there, you sweet little clueless shits, that have decided they may want to be lawyers. I plan on making this a continuing series, by the way, because there’s a lot to be said to the dumbasses that feel the need to become attorneys.

So You Want to Be a Lawyer

Well, you’ve done it.  Through a series of bad life decisions you’ve decided that you want to pursue a career in law.  Maybe it’s because you have some deep, abiding passion for the justice system.  Maybe it’s because you’re about to graduate college, and after five years realized that your degree in literally any liberal arts field is completely fucking worthless.  Maybe you suffered some massive brain trauma while watching To Kill a Mockingbird with grandma.  Whatever the circumstances, you’ve decided that you’re going to become an attorney come hell or high water.

It’s really fucked up how people reach this decision in life. For me, for instance, it was a long and winding road that led me from literally shoveling shit to working deck of riverboats before I finally caved. Shit, in my time between high school and law school I was a bouncer, a bartender, a laser tag referee, a gas station clerk, a barista at an all-night gay coffee shop (imagine explaining that one to your decidedly not-gay dates), a deckhand, a car salesman and, for one brief period  I was an appeals reviewer for a health insurance company. It was the last one that pushed me over the edge from merely being a general misanthrope to deciding that my life’s calling was to actively make other people suffer.

What’s your path that brought you to this point in your life? Seriously, think about that for a second. It’s a rhetorical question, meant to get you thinking about things. You know it’s a rhetorical question by the way I don’t really give a shit what your answer is. As we’ll soon see, your reason isn’t good enough. The only reason good enough to decide to become a lawyer is that your life is a pit of misery and self-loathing, and only the sweet joy of passing darkness on to all those that come into contact with you in some form relieves the unrelenting and unbearable agony of merely drawing breath. Period, full stop, end of sentence.

“But Boozy,” I hear you crying, “I want to change the world!” Good for you. Go into engineering or biology or some shit like that. Create a flying car or some superdrug that kills the fuck out of AIDS. Do something that betters mankind in general, but don’t think you’re going to change the world as a lawyer. Lawyers have been in existence since ancient fucking Greece, and in case you haven’t noticed the world is still shit. There’s still oppression, war, hatred, intolerance, and injustice on every goddamn corner. The poor are still trapped in their situations, and the rich still skate off scot-free. You ain’t changing shit, man.

“But Boozy,” I hear you insist, “History has great lawyers, and lawyers can be the gatekeepers of justice for the rich and the poor alike.”  See, this shit bothers me because it’s never fucking been true once in the entirety of the history of fucking lawyers.  Jesus-jumping-Christ, you’re deciding to enter a profession without even knowing a little bit about the history of it. Lawyers never fucking change, and haven’t changed once in the entire fucking history of professional legal representation. It’s been that way for 2,000 years, and it’s going to be that way for 2,000 more.

Here’s the basic history of lawyers, which is exactly as fucking depressing as you would think.

A Brief History of Prostitution.

As you probably know, the legal system that we have today in the United States is more or less a direct offshoot of the English common law system that developed from the 1275 Statute of Westminster. If you don’t know this, you’ll  be reminded of it constantly when studying the law, first in the form of people saying things about a high-minded legal tradition, and then from reading cases that are literally from 1502 and contain the word “shire” in the opinion. However, the modern legal system, and indeed the modern legal profession, doesn’t come from England at all. It comes from Rome. No shit, the first bar associations, the first bar exam, the first legal education requirements…all of that shit comes from the Romans. And not in the roundabout “oh, the Romans had that idea” way, no no no. Lawyers today, and the fucked up system in which we work, are a direct fucking result of laws put in place two thousand goddamn years ago. Take that, “modernization of law.”

In Ancient Greece, and continuing into Ancient Rome, people argued their own cases to a court of citizens and were judged accordingly. People, however, are fucking idiots on a large scale, so sometimes they’d ask a friend to argue for them. Those are the only two people that could argue your case: you or a friend. The problem is, mouth-breathing idiots tend not to be friends with stunning fucking orators, so asking your friend to argue your case was a non-starter, especially if the person bringing the charges against you happened to be a highly-educated member of the upper-class. So there evolved this system of unofficial “friends for hire” that would argue a case on your behalf in return for a goat, or a chicken, or whatever the fuck passed for currency in those dark times. That’s right, the first lawyers were literally being paid to say they were your friend. This is very similar to another ancient profession where folks were paid to be your friend in an entirely different manner.

Well, maybe not entirely different.

In either case, you were paying to get fucked.

Now, the Classical era soon passed into the annals of history, and the Romans picked up the mantle of the Greeks in many areas.  They stole their gods, their style, and generally everything about the culture of those Athenian bastards, including their legal system. This whole “friend speaking for you” shit continued, but now it became somewhat generally accepted to take a fee for arguing a case, if still not technically legal.  Lawyers everywhere rejoiced, especially because there was no formal regulation on the legal profession or requirements for entry to the same.  Somewhere around the reign of Emperor Claudius, however, the American Bar Association decided this simply would not do.  How the ABA managed to exist prior to the existence of the United States of America, not to mention how it existed in Ancient Rome, is still a hot subject of debate among lawyers.  The leading theory is somewhere there’s a time machine that allows them to assert a historical stranglehold on the profession.

With the emergence of the ABA from the shadows of Rome’s seedy underbelly, Emperor Claudius decided that there should be an actual profession for the practice of law and thus it was declared that people who wanted to be lawyers had to become members of a professional organization.  The ABA promptly rejoiced and immediately went about establishing the world’s first Brooks Brothers outlet on the banks of the Rubicon. The merriment, however, was short-lived as Claudius also established a firm fee cap, stating that no lawyer could accept a fee of over 10,000 sesterces for a case.  The exact value of this is lost to time, but it’s worth noting that a sesterce was worth 2.5 asses, another Roman coin.  So it’s fair to say that, for every case in ancient Rome, a lawyer was dealing with no more than 25,000 asses at a time.  Little has changed since.

In fact, Rome had a lot of good ideas that would return to haunt the fuck out of the legal profession and all of those that dared to attempt to become counsel. The bar exam?  Roman invention. Requiring admission before each individual court that you practice in front of? Romans again. Requiring three to four years of legal study before being qualified to apply for admission to the bar? Romans, motherfucker! Even the paralegal, a trained legal professional that can perform a number of functions on behalf of and in the stead of lawyers and can do so with about one-tenth of the arrogance and without the fancy fucking title, is based on a Roman concept. However, after coming up with so many ways to keep their futuristic overlords from the American Bar Association happy, the Romans then went and took the completely logical step of capping the number of attorneys that could be admitted to any court’s bar at a given time. While this made sense logistically, it did not serve to increase the number of dues-paying members to any given association, and shortly thereafter the Roman Empire declined and fell under the swords of barbarians…or class-action litigators. The books are a little unclear on which it was.

The Roman Empire fell in roughly 500 A.D., or C.E. if you’re one of those academic, politically correct assholes that insists the use of the term “A.D.” somehow supports neo-Christian microaggression while perpetuating the patriarchal power structure or some such bullshit. From about then until 1250 A.D., there’s practically no written history of professional lawyers. The American Bar Association refers to this historical period as “The Great Darkness of Humanity” or “The Era of Lost Billings.” Laymen refer to it as “The Golden Years.” Academics refer to it as “The Middle Ages” or, more colloquially, the Dark Ages. Once again, as shown by the generally accepted naming conventions, the influence of the lobbying branches of the ABA knows no boundaries. This is a period marked by barbarian/tribal norms ruling over civil and criminal litigation and trials, with a noble hearing the cases and parties appearing to argue their own case in simple terms while seeking redress, equity, and justice from their lord.

So after the fall of Rome, at least the Western part of Rome, the whole damn world was rid of lawyers. See, the savages that conquered the Roman Empire didn’t really believe that a motherfucker should be able to hire a fancy law-talking guy and get their asses out of a sling. No, among the barbarian tribes there was a notion that a party in a lawsuit, plaintiff or defendant, should have to argue their own goddamn case in front of the court, and only in special circumstances could they get something to talk on their behalf to the lord, knight, chieftain, or king that was presiding over the case. Oh, did I forget to mention that? Yeah, the people who were hearing cases during the Middle Ages weren’t trained judges selected for their skill and knowledge, but rather titleholders selected because of who their father is.

If you take a look at the list of judges sitting on the bench in your local court, and compare their names with the last five generations of judges in the same court, you’ll see this hasn’t really changed much.

Still, the Roman tradition of professional lawyers continued to be the norm in the Ecclesiastical Courts of the Catholic Church, and when society became civilized again and a codification of law came about with the 1275 and 1285 Statutes of Westminster, it was this example that became the model for the English civil courts going forward. The same example that had been set in place over a thousand years prior when Claudius looked at Roman courts and said “Hey, you know what sounds like a good idea? An entire profession designed to fuck peoples’ lives up. Let’s get on that shit.” Except, this time, they did away with those pesky things like “fee caps” and “limited admission to the bar,” and thus did the ABA climb back into their time machine, cackling evilly as they removed their codpieces, and travel back to the modern era to make a fucking happy hour and see how that Brooks Brothers they established was doing these days.

In later years, after the full extent of the harm that was done by the Catholic Church by preserving the profession of “Lawyer” through the Middle Ages was revealed, the church went full-on Bond villain and started molesting little children. I assume, as many do, this was a direct result of the influence of attorneys who effectively were granted a 700 year sanctuary in the Church’s protection.

The English, by and large, kept what the Romans had established as a system of paid advocates, but also incorporated some of that tribal shit the Normans were doing into the whole mix as well, making it a hybrid legal system. See, the Normans had this whole thing that they kind of stole from the Germanic tribes, where there were two classes of legal advisors. One gave you general legal advice and helped you in general matters, and the other was more highly trained and could represent you in court. If there are any of those limey bastards reading this, they’ll recognize that I’m talking in broad terms about solicitors and barristers. This system perseveres in England, and has led to a booming industry in horsehair robes and wigs. In America, however, we quickly did away with this fucking distinction and created a single attorney that was as incompetent at trying a case as he was drafting a will. Because I am an American, that’s the one I’m focusing on. Let the Brits get their own foul-mouthed lawyer to write a goddamn book.

When the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock, there is a practical certainty that on its passenger list was at least one person who had fled England with a legal bill unpaid. Naturally, then, we can assume that the first lawyer who set foot on American soil was from the very next boat to land, and he was there to get his fucking money. In any case, however, we know that lawyers as a whole were imported into the United States from the system that was in place in England, and many of these attorneys were trained in England. Upon arriving here, they found the climate a little less than hospitable.

See, when motherfuckers left England a lot of them intended to leave behind the things that had made their lives unbearable. Oppression from the crown, debt collectors, legal threats, and, yes, even lawyers. See, people tended to come here in order to try and make a fortune, and the mere existence of an attorney works against that whole notion, as we’re prone to demanding a portion of your wealth at some fucking point in our existence. This may be why certain colonies, like Georgia, flat out banned lawyers at first. As land disputes and legal issues grew, the ban was lifted so people could raise claims and have assistance in front of the courts. This has widely been regarded as a bad fucking move, and the people of Georgia have regretted it ever since.

This doesn’t mean the history of lawyers in America has been all bad. I mean, John Adams was a lawyer! Granted, he lost his first case because, while he was well-versed in the academics of law and argument he fucked up the pleadings and the whole mess was thrown out of court, but he was a lawyer! In fact, a lot of America’s leading statesmen were lawyers, as it was a practice that a person could enter through long nights of study and days of learning at the feet of practicing attorneys, and a good lawyer could earn a decent living travelling the circuit to appear for clients in court. Still, these are the result of the English tradition of lawyers, and once America was on its own things got a little . . . fucky.

See, prior to the late 19th century (that’s the 1800’s, assholes) the majority of lawyers were professionals that represented their clients in court. There was none of this mediation/arbitration/let’s all play nice bullshit that has seeped into the profession today. The role of an attorney was to take a case, argue the legal grounds, and move on from it. If possible, the lawyer could give advice or help a client seek a non-court resolution, but practicing law in that time period generally meant taking your ass into court and representing your client. This led to an era of theatrical lawyers like Howe and Hummel, New York’s prevalent scumbag lawyers. On the other hand, it also led to moral crusaders that twisted the law to meet their means. Yet, on the other hand (that’s three hands, you mutant freak), it also created men like Abraham Lincoln. Definitely a mixed bag.

Then came the 20th century and legal reform, with bar associations taking a larger hand in regulating the profession. While you’re going to hear in some fucking ethics course about how lawyers are a “self-regulating profession” and therefore are held to a higher ethical standard, prior to the late-19th and early-20th centuries the “bar association” consisted mainly of circuit riding trial lawyers sitting their asses around a fire doling out punishment amongst themselves for misdeeds performed in court that day. If it sounds like this was some sort of “hazing” ritual, I have no doubt that’s exactly what it was. One must wonder if Abraham Lincoln ever demanded another attorney butt-chug a flagon of ale or something for overstepping boundaries on cross-examination. I bet he totally did.

Anyhow, what wasn’t being handled in reprimands involving butt-chugging ale flagons around the fire of a roadside tavern, a tradition that still exists in certain law schools, was being handled by the courts as they brought the hammer down on lawyers that were immoral, inept, or just plain fucking stupid. This, of course, led to an outcry, and in the late 1800’s various states began to form professional associations of lawyers to stave off the increasing threat of legislative regulation of the practice of law. Yeah, bar associations had existed before that, like the Philadelphia Bar Association in 1802, but the fact is most of those were really resource-sharing groups for attorneys and not governing bodies. In 1875, however, the American Bar Association was formed, and immediately it began to serve no purpose as it in no way had the authority to manage the profession of law in every state. Much more effective were the bar associations set up by each individual state, which remain in place today, and the era of the professional attorney was born.

The ABA, in a desperate bid to remain relevant, began to dismantle and rearrange the very manner in which people became and remained lawyers.  But, by and large, by the early 20th Century the profession of law was regulated by bar associations, required admission to the bar, required admission to the specific courts an attorney attempted to practice in, had a system of education that a lawyer had to undertake, and was a self-regulating and disciplining profession. Or, in other words, exactly what the fucking Romans had set up almost 2,000 years before.

Still want to be a lawyer?  Okay, well then, time for Boozy’s final words:

Take note, shitheads. Clinging desperately to antiquated concepts is going to be something you experience a hell of a lot as you make the journey from the uneducated and unwashed horde that you currently exist within into the hallowed halls of unwashed and uneducated attorneys that you currently wish to join. There’s still plenty of time to become an engineer.

-BB

Author: BoozyBarrister

From a riverboat to a law office, the BoozyBarrister is a civil litigator with a bad attitude.